Artists of the Year

In light of Monica's juggernaut proportions, honoring her as artist of the year might seem facile, if not malicious--as it does when the New York Times' fluffy yet mean Maureen Dowd asks, "Who needs actors when we have Monica and [her] mom?" But Lewinsky's bid to represent herself--via missives to Bill, a Vanity Fair spread, or poised on Barbara Walters's couch--marks a notable moment in the post-'60s sex-culture wars. She's no frail flower (which part of "yes" don't you understand?), nor is she a feminist poster girl ("I don't care about pretty. I care about thin" is not exactly the kind of slogan we were looking for). She reminds her audience that sexual expression can be painful, messy, exciting, and superficial; and that courtship, with all its wardrobe choices, note-passing, eye-catching, rendezvous-planning, and strategy-crafting, is nothing if not performance art.

 

Leslie Dunlap is a Philadelphia writer and a frequent contributor to City Pages.

 

ANTHONY LEWIS

by Greil Marcus

My artist of the year is Anthony Lewis, the New York Times op-ed columnist who has so doggedly stayed on the heels of the con artist of the year, prosecutor Kenneth Starr. It was in 1998 that Starr, abandoning all pretense of a true-crime story, proved himself master of the long con (as opposed to the mere "Hey, that was a twenty I gave you, mister, not a ten" short con). He produced an elaborate, carefully set up and sustained story that preyed upon the mark's need to believe, on his sense of entitlement, most of all on his vanity. And in this case the mark was the most vain of all the nobles in the land: the Washington press corps.

Starr fed their fantasies that they too could be Woodward and Bernstein, that they too could bring down a president, and that they too could save the country--oh well, as Meat Loaf says, two out of three ain't bad. The deal was simple: Give Starr coverage, and he'll give you stories. Write with distance, write with skepticism, and the pipe is cut off. Thus the fantastic spectacle, as the year went on, of reporters soberly chronicling the scandal over Starr's illegal leaking of grand jury material as if it were an insoluble mystery--as if they had somehow forgotten just who it was who had leaked to them.

For years, Lewis has exposed the disregard for civil liberties that has marked the Clinton administration: the instinct for censorship, the craven sellouts of habeas corpus and myriad other citizens' protections for a few polling points. The problem, Lewis once wrote, was that Clinton has no bottom line: no position on the Constitution from which, finally, he won't retreat. But Lewis had never gambled on anyone like Starr, a man prepared to destroy the Constitution in order to destroy a president he plainly sees as the embodiment of evil, of chaos, of that dread and floating idea, "The Sixties"--a man Starr knows in his bones is the Antichrist and, what is worse, what is really important, a man whose very existence Starr takes as a deeply personal affront. Thus Lewis has written carefully, without screaming, like a good crime reporter, stripping away the euphemisms of the press, cutting through the bland and obfuscating reportage of his own newspaper. And, like a linguist, like an epistemologist, he has turned the facts in the public record over and over until they fell into place and spoke a real language; he kept at it until he cracked the case.

He did it on December 1, in a piece called "The Starr Trap." He boiled the case down to the we-didn't-have-sex affidavit that Monica Lewinsky had sworn out as a deposition in the Paula Jones case--but which, when Starr's men descended on Lewinsky as Linda Tripp set her up in Pentagon City, had yet to be filed. Swearing a false affidavit is not a crime; filing one is. Lewis: "This is why [Starr's] deputies worked so hard to keep Ms. Lewinsky from calling [her lawyer] Frank Carter. If he knew what was happening, they realized, he would not file it. And they wanted a crime."

Thus Bill Clinton, another vain noble, another true mark, went forward with testimony that, had he known what was happening, would never have been given. It was the first trap of many and, as an article in Lewis's own paper would put it a few weeks before Lewis cracked the case, something that no longer mattered. All that mattered was this really cool story that the paper got to publish every day.

They will be forgotten, all the breathless dispatches from D.C., all the weighty, considered, serious, pompous Times editorials on decency and responsibility, on leadership and obligation, the thousands and thousands of heavy words overseen by editorial page editor Howell Raines, like Bill Clinton a white Southerner in his 50s, who every day must ask himself one question, one question on which his oversight of the Republic rests: How come that schmuck's President and I'm not? What's he got that I don't have?

This does not seem to be a question that has ever occurred to Anthony Lewis, who, working with what was hiding in plain sight, rewrote the daily news as a detective story that may be read with gasps of shock long after he and everyone else mentioned above is dead.

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